Anatomy of a Classic

Creamy Grilled Eggplant with Juicy Tomatoes

In this recipe from Neng Jr.’s in Asheville, Filipino flavors and family know-how combine in a veggie-laden dish perfect for grilling season

An eggplant and tomato dish on a green patterened tablecloth

Photo: Johnny Autry

Most chefs will tell you their best recipes start with a memory. For Silver Iocovozzi, one in particular stands out: his grilled eggplant smothered in a bright mix of seasoned tomatoes, a dish he first tasted on a beach in the Philippines.

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Iocovozzi, who grew up in North Carolina, runs Neng Jr.’s in Asheville with his husband, Cherry. Iocovozzi’s father was an American serviceman. His mother, Neneng, is from the Philippines. (Her nickname is Neng, and he was so much like her when he was growing up, people called him Neng Jr.) The tiny restaurant has become a national darling for a menu that marries Filipino food with Appalachian ingredients and technique. The eggplant, a favorite with diners, began on a visit to his mother’s homeland in 2018, during a morning he spent on the beach with his uncle near his house in the city of Batangas.

“Tito Arnold is hilarious and likes to have a lot of fun constantly,” Iocovozzi says. “We were up early just enjoying the beach before it got too hot, and a woman walked toward us carrying this bag of eggplants.” His uncle bought some and made a fire, pushing the coals into a pyramid and roasting the eggplants, called talong in Tagalog, until they were nearly black. He nestled them into bowls lined with banana leaves and topped them with an enticing blend of tomatoes and cilantro spiked with fish sauce. “That was one of the most memorable dishes I had in the Philippines,” Iocovozzi says.

It’s an easy dish to re-create at home. He prefers Japanese eggplants because they turn so custardy on the grill. Avoid ones that feel too firm, he advises. They should give when you press on them with your thumb.

Grilling the eggplants requires a little patience. Pull them too soon and the flesh won’t become creamy, a texture essential to the dish. Wait until the skin chars to black. They should release a little puff of steam when they’re ready.

Think of the topping as a kind of juicy salsa. Sliced Sungold or other cherry tomatoes work nicely, but feel free to use any good summer garden tomatoes chopped into roughly uniform pieces. You want the most flavorful tomatoes you can find. “I like to let the ingredients speak for themselves,” Iocovozzi says.

You can make the mixture ahead of time and chill it before you top the steaming eggplants for even more hot-cold contrast, but it’s just fine to whip it up right before serving, too. Like much of the Neng Jr.’s menu, the dish reflects the best kind of culinary amalgamation. Though Iocovozzi was raised on Filipino food, one of the first restaurants he worked in was an Eastern Carolina barbecue spot. “There’s this appreciation of open-fire cooking that crosses cultures,” he says. “I try to stay true to the flavors of my mom and the food I grew up with, but I want it to feel genuine to this place.”


  • Tito Arnold’s Talong (Yield: 4 servings)

    • 3 cloves garlic, grated on a Microplane

    • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced, or 1½ cups other chopped tomatoes

    • 1 bunch cilantro or culantro, finely chopped

    • 1 serrano pepper or 2 Thai chiles, sliced very thin

    • ¼ cup Red Boat fish sauce

    • ¼ to ½ cup water

    • 4 small or 3 larger Japanese eggplants (about 1½ lb.)

    • Freshly ground black pepper

    • Flaky salt

    • Extra-virgin olive oil


  1. Combine garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, serrano, fish sauce, and ¼ cup water in a bowl. Depending on how juicy the tomatoes are, you may need to add more water to get a loose salsa consistency.

  2. Prepare a gas or charcoal grill so that it is very hot. Place eggplants directly on grate or coals. Cook eggplants on one side until they’re soft and turn black. Flip to roast the other side. The flesh will be very tender and smearable when cooked all the way through. Pockets of steam may billow out while cooking.

  3. Place eggplants on a plate and slice each one lengthwise as you would a baked potato to expose the steamed flesh, leaving the ends intact.

  4. Spoon the tomato mixture generously over each eggplant. Add some twists of ground pepper, flakes of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil.

An illustration of a man with a purple shirt and tattoos on his arms


Hometown: Apex, North Carolina


Advice for aspiring chefs: “I would ask them to step out of their comfort zones and move to a city and work with someone they feel inspired by.”


Go-to menu order: “I can be really basic. Sometimes it’s steak tartare and a shrimp cocktail and a salad. Simple dishes indicate how good the kitchen is.”


Current obsession: “I just got back into making sausage.”



On the horizon: His husband Cherry’s upcoming wine bar and bottle shop, which they are installing next to the restaurant.


Illustration: Lara Tomlin